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Let’s change the mood from glad to sadness

When I lost access to Californication, I figured I had better watch Aquarius while I still can. This 2-season TV show is currently on both Netflix’s and Amazon Prime’s streaming, so there is probably not a huge risk of its imminent disappearance. Still, once bitten, twice shy.

I haven’t found any articles that explain when David Duchovny was picked for the role of Sam Hodiak. Aquarius was fast on the heels of Californication‘s final season and it feels to me that the lead in the new show was created with Duchovny in mind. The character of an aging detective is, from the opening episode, filled out for us, the audience, by Duchovny’s previous roles. He is a seasoned police officer that we’ve watched for more than two decades. He also has his demons – alcohol abuse and, shall we say, lady problems – which we’ve seen detailed in Californication. I’ve read that Duchovny deliberately “aged” his appearance for Aquarius, so as to look the part of a detective who is in the process of realizing he has passed his prime. He’s definitely looking his age in this one; no more mistaking him for “thirty-something.”

The X-Files made did Duchovny a celebrity, but he was a B-level celebrity if not necessarily a B-grade actor. For all its fanatic followers, the X-Files was a not-so-serious, low-budget show. To me, at least, the Californication stint promoted him to a higher celebrity tier – even if for no other reason than that he “played one on T.V.” Is it more than coincidence that, before we knew Fox Mulder, Duchovny was chasing serial killers in Kalifornia? And now post Californication he is chasing a serial killer once again? I guess once you’re in the X-Files, you career can go a bit kooky.

Historical Fiction, Emphasis on the Latter?

In the pre-release press, the show’s developer John McNamara, emphasized the historical fiction angle of the show. The show starts with Duchovny’s detective being asked by (we are soon to discover) a now-married ex-girlfriend to help find her missing daughter, but to do so on the QT. The teen has been taken from a party to the commune of Charles Manson although we (also quickly) learn there is far more to this than meets the eye. This main story and many of the other details about Manson seem to be more contrived than accurate, but bits and pieces of reality are weaved throughout so as to give even the pure fictional parts a realistic tinge. The plot begins in 1967; before Mason’s recordings, before the Beatles’ single Helter Skelter, and well before the murders of 1969.

Manson’s doings circa 1967, while not entirely known, are still better documented than those of Alfred the Great. Yet, the decision to largely fictionalize the activities of the Manson Family not only works but may have be a necessity. Manson is still alive. The families of his victims (both those murdered and those enthralled into his cult) are still alive and that holds true for some of the victims themselves. Portraying real people committing criminal acts could be touchy. When it comes to the Mason family, this was the right way to go.

Coming fresh off of Season 1 of Californication, Aquarius has much to live up to. So far, I’d say it falls short. Is it is writing, directing, or acting? While none of it is outright bad, neither does any of it rise to greatness. Duchovny is required to anchor the show with his character, but I’m not sure this character is the one to do it. I’d like to say that it is a decent show that just isn’t living up to its potential, but I also can’t quite see what that potential is. I can’t pinpoint the places that I see the show making a near miss, I just know it’s outside the bull ring.

Deeper meaning for this show could have come from a number of different angles. As a docudrama, it could have tried to provide insight into the motivations and personality of Charles Manson – a route that recent historical fictions have typically gone. However, the obvious fictionalization surrounding the Mason family probably prevents this from working. It could instead be an allegory for the troubles we have in America today – racial friction, generational conflict, collapse of traditional sexual roles, to name a few. This is a difficult line to walk. It can ruin your “historical” part of your story (what I referred to earlier as “period-not-so-period drama”) and, in this case, is inherently at odds with the imagined inside-look at the life of Manson’s family. The final option is the straight-up period drama; where you emphasize the clothes, the music, and the culture of a bygone time. I think the show went for the latter, although they may also have been attempting allegory but just not doing the best job of it.

The episodes can be heavy-handed in their portrayal of the “bad old days.” Sexism, anti-homosexual bigotry, and racism are all on display for us to scorn. It feels overdone, not because these things weren’t issues in 1967, but because the show lacks the depth to weave the shortcoming of the previous generation into its background. Contrast with Mad Men, where the misbehavior of the characters looked right and natural, even though we all know how wrong it was.

The fictionalization, and the extent of it, also hinders the storyline. There show presents a mix of the factual, the speculative, and the totally made up. Each seems to be assigned their own parameters. For example, the Vietnam war is allowed to take its course in the background and we can see period footage on TV. The show, pretty obviously, couldn’t make change the outcome of a major battle or otherwise alter U.S. history. Manson’s doings are also constrained by his own future, which is well know by the viewing audience. In contrast, the unrelated (to Manson) criminal cases that Duchovny’s Hodiak and his coworkers take on, even the major murder cases, are contrived and open to reinterpretation by modern sentiment.

One in particular hit me as all wrong. Season 1, Episode 9 features the murder of patrol officers in what [spoiler, but it was so obvious from the opining shot, not really] turns out to be a racially-motivate hate crime (to lapse into modern parlance). The story uses the all-to-common “one of our own” narrative lifted from modern cop drama. This is the episode of a series where a member of the featured police force (or firefighters or whatever) becomes one of the victims, and so the entire force unites to find the killer. It can be a dramatic narrative, to be sure, but we’ve seen it before. It has its particular ulterior motive in this show in that it brings together several main characters, who have been at each other throats, in a common crusade. So far not so far off.

Here is the problem. The crime, a killing spree of white/black officer partners, is entirely fantastic. It’s something that the left seems to like to imagine is happening (or would happen, I suppose, save for their benevolent rule), but doesn’t actually occur. In the real Los Angeles of 1967 (and the surrounding years, just to be inclusive), a handful of officers were shot in the line of duty, but they were all white. Outside of the Watts riots in 1965, none of the shootings were racially motivated – it was just bog-standard crime (or, surprisingly often, accidental shootings during training).

As a matter of fact, the nature of the on-screen crimes seem to be more akin to a series of murders in San Francisco starting with the killing of Officer Herman George, a black man, on November 13, 1967. There would be a series of, possibly related, murders of police officers over the next four years, all appearing to be racial in nature. My problem is that the culprit in the San Francisco cases is the Black Liberation Army, a more-radical offshoot of the Black Panthers*. While it was probably wise not to fabricated a racially-motivated killing and attributed to the Black Panthers, is it really so much better to do the same but put the blame on Whitey? This definitely feels like a projection of today’s politics in a way that’s cheap and contrived.

Then we head into Episode 10. The key plot element here is the “outing” of a detective, one who has never told anyone the he was born of a Cuban father. The push comes from real-life journalist Ruben Salazar, who covered the Mexican-American (Chicano) community and, as his career went on, began advocating for political change. While Salazar is real and working for the L.A. Times in 1967, he was at that time engaged as a foreign correspondent, reporting from Mexico (but also covering Vietnam and other international stories). The episode takes its rough details from a 1970 article in which Salazar, among other things, decried that the L.A. City Council had no Mexican-Americans among its members. In particular, he cited the fact that “three Negro council-men” were currently in office. Especially given the historical context, the contrivance of shifting the year (back two) and the target (from the City Council to the Police) combines poorly with having him attack a fellow Latino. While outing and punishing collaborators was certainly a thing in the 1960s, the way it was worked into Aquarius seems disjointed enough to, again, make me think they are trying to make a modern point, albeit one that has eluded me.

Where the little girls in their Hollywood bungalows?

Only after an episode or two did I look up from whence this show came. I was surprised. The show was developed for NBC and was broadcast on the network. However, immediately after showing the pilot, they also released all the Season 1 episodes on Hulu and the NBC mobile app. But this isn’t what surprised me.

What surprised me were the boobs. The on-screen wango-tango isn’t quite at Game of Thrones or Californication levels, but it is there. Thus, I assumed, it must be another Showtime or HBO production. When I read this actually aired on NBC, I wondered if I had imagined the topless girls (as I am wont to do) but, no, additional episodes continued to show me the money. While the show was aired with a TV-14 warning, bare buxom bosoms are a titillation too far for a traditional TV network. Further reading informed me that the series was actually made with both a TV edit and a DVD edit; the latter containing scenes not appropriate for television. Apparently, Netflix serves up the more risque DVD version. I haven’t checked up on Amazon, although I’m going to assume they’ve done the same.

As I write this, I’ve just watched the cliff-hanger ending to Season 1 and I am ready to take on Season 2. I should think there will be more to come.

*As a side note, the Panthers are also give a slightly more historical treatment. Los Angeles founder and leader Bunch Carter is a minor character featured in multiple epsiodes with the implication that Hodiak made him who he became.